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Lynn Nottage frequently writes dramas “about” a topic or historical subject that’s in or near the news: blue-collar unemployment, prostitution in Central Africa, the Great Migration. Sober, earnest stuff, in other words, the kind of thing that tends not to engage me—and yet she’s one of my half-dozen favorite living playwrights, among the very few whose latest show I’ll go to see knowing only that she wrote it….
“Mlima’s Tale,” Ms. Nottage’s new play, was inspired by a magazine article about how wild elephants are illegally hunted down by “contract poachers” and their ivory tusks smuggled out of Africa and sold for profit. The results should by all rights have been preachy in the extreme. Instead, “Mlima’s Tale” turns out to be an enthralling piece of theater that tells a fascinating story in a daringly original way…
Part of what makes “Mlima’s Tale” so fine is its bold craftsmanship. Architecturally speaking, Ms. Nottage pays tribute to Arthur Schnitzler’s “La Ronde,” but she has made Schnitzler’s daisy-chain structure entirely her own. Using just four actors on a near-bare stage—one of whom plays the title character, an elephant—she transports us step by step from a savannah in Kenya to a cocktail party in Beijing. Along the way we learn how the tusks of Mlima (he’s the elephant) are stripped from his corpse and turned into sculptures for the newly monied Chinese leisure class….
Instead of pounding the pulpit, she portrays her characters not as political-cartoon symbols of good and evil but as men and women whose motives, as is almost always true in real life, are mixed. Most memorable of all is the master sculptor into whose hands Mlima’s tusks are consigned. Corrupted by his own connoisseurship, he knows but will not admit to himself that they have been procured illegally. “I’m a Buddhist. I could not conscience killing for my craft,” he claims. Yet he cannot resist the chance to make “something singular” out of them—something for which, needless to say, he will be well paid….
“Summer,” the last new musical of the 2017-18 Broadway season, is a comic book set to top-40 tunes. It tells the story of Donna Summer, the Disco Queen who brought you “Hot Stuff” and “She Works Hard for the Money,” and it does so in a way so vacuous that I was reduced to helpless giggling almost before I got settled in my aisle seat….
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To read my review of Mlima’s Tale, go here. (This is the complete version—the print version is shorter.)
To read my review of Summer, go here.
The trailer for Mlima’s Tale: